Ernesto Fails to Chase Space Shuttle Atlantis Inside

The space shuttle Atlantis remains on its launch pad after NASA decides that Tropical Storm Ernesto is not a serious threat to the vehicle.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NASA made a dramatic turnaround yesterday. In the morning, workers started moving Space Shuttle Atlantis off the launch pad. Officials wanted to get the shuttle into the safety of its hangar before Tropical Storm Ernesto struck. In the afternoon, when they saw the weather was improving, they sent the shuttle back. And that wasn't the first back-and-forth for NASA this week.

NPR's Nell Boyce has been following events at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Good morning.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, Nell, are people generally ready for Ernesto?

BOYCE: Well, I don't know. I had to leave the Space Center yesterday. The Space Center is closed now. There's just a small ride-out crew that's going to stay for the storm.

But yesterday it was a really busy day. First trying to get ready, and then trying to send the shuttle back. Everything was kind of crazy.

MONTAGNE: So tell us what happened?

BOYCE: Well, NASA was worried about strong winds from Ernesto, so they sent this huge machine out to the launch pad. It's called a crawler. It's actually the largest ground transportation vehicle in the world and it's big enough to bring the shuttle back in its hangar. But it's so big that it's really, really slow. It goes less than a mile an hour.

So it was chugging along the four miles back to the hangar and the small number of press people who were still there were watching on TV when we started thinking that something was happening and maybe it had stopped, although it was hard to tell because it goes so slow.

Then NASA announced that, yes, they were going to stop and send the shuttle back to the launch pad - the first time they've ever done that kind of reversal - because they're hoping it will let them launch during a window that closes early next week.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like quite a huge effort to take the shuttle off to just then turn around and put it back on again.

BOYCE: It sure was but, you know, they're eager to get this mission up. They're going to restart construction of the International Space Station, which has been sort of half-finished since the Columbia disaster three years ago. So they want all the launch opportunities they can get, and there's going to be one next week that they were hoping to be ready for.

MONTAGNE: And this isn't the first weather-related drama for this shuttle mission. There was also something about lightening?

BOYCE: That's right. On Friday, when the space shuttle was out on the launch pad getting ready for a launch attempt, it was struck by the biggest bolt of lightening ever to hit the launch pad. The shuttle itself wasn't struck, but the launch pad was struck.

And keep in mind, Florida does get a lot of lightening. It's the lightening capital of the United States. But this was a big one even by the standards here. So it took a couple of days to make sure the shuttle's electronics weren't fried, and by the time the shuttle was ready to launch again Ernesto had showed up.

MONTAGNE: You know, Nell, if the shuttle needs clear skies to launch, why, in a way looking back, did NASA build the launch pad in a place that has such extreme weather?

BOYCE: It seems a little crazy, but actually it does make sense because you don't want to launch big rockets over any place that has a lot of people. I mean, what if something goes wrong and the rocket is heading back down.

In Florida you're right next to a big ocean and you'll be launching east. That's the direction that the earth is spinning. You're also, for the United States, pretty close to the equator, which gives rockets a extra little push.

And also, of course, Florida is a politically important state, so it's a good place to build a center.

Still, the weather isn't that great, although it's usually not quite this dramatic.

MONTAGNE: Nell, thanks very much. NPR's Nell Boyce.

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